GROUP 2: Your club's 2019 season preview
RUGBY LEAGUE: Kick-off to the 2019 Group 2 season is mere hours away, and after a long off-season players and fans alike have been counting down the days until the return of rugby league action.
Before the season starts, now is the time to take a look at how your team fared last season, and what they can expect for the year ahead. The Coffs Coast Advocate's Sam Flanagan and The Daily Examiner's Jarrard Potter took a look into the crystal ball to predict where your team will finish the 2019 season.
Predicted finish: 1st
BOWING out of finals contention in straight losses is not something the Grafton Ghosts are known for, and the first grade side will go to great lengths this season to prove that last year was an abnormality.
The return of some familiar faces into the fold will certainly go a long way towards achieving that goal.
A huge loss for the first grade side last season was five-eighth Clint Greenshields. Any Group 2 side would feel the loss of a player of his calibre, and the Ghosts were no exception. With his presence providing further direction to the backline, it frees up captain-coach Danny Wicks to eat up the metres in the middle of the field.
The return of electric fullback Mitch Lollback, who helped guide the club to their Clayton Cup-winning 2017 premiership, will also be a welcomed.
The Ghosts have recruited well over the off-season too, with English recruit Brad Billsborough to play halfback.
ORARA VALLEY AXEMEN
Predicted finish: 2nd
AFTER finishing second on the competition ladder last season, the Orara Valley Axemen were dealt the embarrassment of being bundled out of the finals in straight sets.
This clearly hit a nerve with the club, as the boys from the hinterland have taken their pre-season training up a notch this year.
With a greater focus on strength and conditioning, the Axemen won't be lying down in the 80th minute this year.
After interest from rival clubs, including the South Grafton Rebels, coach Col Speed recommitted his future to the Axemen in the off-season. Speed has rebuilt the Axemen from wooden spooners to premiership threats thanks to shrewd recruitment and great structures in just two years.
You can be sure the veteran coach wouldn't have re-committed to the club if he didn't see premiership success in the near future. Expect the Axemen to be in the reckoning come finals time once again.
COFFS HARBOUR COMETS
Predicted finish: 3rd
THE defending premiers of Group 2 have changed a lot since they lifted the premiership last August.
Former captain Simon Brittain has headed to Brisbane to further his footballing career, while highly regarded mentor Brandon Costin has taken up the head coaching role with the Fiji national team.
Club stalwart and former assistant Vaughn Dawes has stepped up and will coach alongside Steve Spencer, who will also play.
The Comets received an early season wake-up call when they were belted 62-0 by the Tweed Coast Raiders in the NSW Challenge Cup, but you can be sure the side will respond to this loss and start the season on fire.
North Coast U23s representative Michael "Buddy" Hart was a key recruit for the Comets in the off-season, and you can expect the live wire utility to provide the Comets spark in attack from the halves or hooking role.
SOUTH GRAFTON REBELS
Predicted finish: 4th
AFTER missing out on the finals by one win last season, the South Grafton Rebels have worked hard in the off-season to prepare as best as possible to be in contention come the end of the regular season.
New first grade coach Craig Youngjohns brings with him to the club, having previously spent more than a decade-and-a-half in the Wynnum-Manly coaching system.
The side began their pre-season earlier than other clubs to build a solid fitness base which could give them an edge over their opponents.
The side will also receive a boost as Grant "Stumpy" Stevens makes his long-awaited return to top-flight football.
After impressing last season, backrower Luke Welch will lead the side, and expect the Rebels to be a far more disciplined and cohesive side this year.
Predicted finish: 5th
EVER consistent, the Sawtell Panthers will no doubt be prowling around the top of the table again in 2019.
The Panthers have had a strong off-season, with multiple bonding sessions combined with hard training to create a tight-knit group of footballers.
This year the club is being coached by Garry Stevenson along with his son Tyran, who is also the team's captain.
Representative front rower Asalemo Usumanu will be one to watch this year, with the 21-year-old ready to wreak havoc on opposition defensive lines.
After falling at the first hurdle in the finals last year, the Panthers will no doubt be out for vengeance in 2019.
The Panthers' depth may be their biggest strength, with the club's reserve grade team primed to go deep into the competition.
Expect a fit side which won't beat themselves and will play to the final whistle.
MACKSVILLE SEA EAGLES
Predicted finish: 6th
THEY were the fairytale team of last season and gave Group 2 fans one hell of a ride.
The Macksville Sea Eagles only won five of their 14 regular season games, but that mediocre record counted for nothing come finals time.
Finishing in fifth place on the ladder, the Sea Eagles went on to roll the Sawtell Panthers, Orara Valley Axemen and Grafton Ghosts in successive weeks.
Their luck ran out in the grand final though, as the Coffs Harbour Comets were able to hold them off for a 30-18 win.
Coached by Gary Jarrett, the Sea Eagles will once again be out to give the competition a shake.
Don't be surprised if another unbelievable run comes together for the team down south in 2019.
As they say, you've got to lose one to win one.
BELLINGEN VALLEY/DORRIGO MAGPIES
Predicted finish: 7th
JUST like the Seahorses, the Bellingen Valley Dorrigo Magpies are back in top flight rugby league this year.
The Magpies fielded a reserve grade team last year who only managed to finish sixth, but don't put a pen through the Magpies based on that.
The club has recruited brilliantly in the off season, including picking up players from the Nambucca Heads Roosters, and have brought back former Bello boys to help steer the joint in the right direction both on and off the field.
Daniel Tempest is captain-coaching the side and the five-eighth will need to have a big year if the Magpies are to swoop into the finals for the first time since 2012.
Keep an eye on winger Brendan Deane who has shown in the pre-season to be an electric finisher from anywhere.
Predicted finish: 8th
AFTER a year in the rugby league wilderness, the Woolgoolga Seahorses are back in the saddle for 2019.
The club have worked tirelessly for the past six months to ensure everything is good to go for their highly anticipated comeback.
The Seahorses have kicked recruitment into overdrive to ensure they have enough players to turn out both a reserve grade and first grade side each week.
The question remains whether the playing ranks have enough depth to stand up to the task of tough games week in, week out.
Former coach Greg Shuttleworth has been brought in to take the clipboard, and will have his work cut out for him in what's looking like an even competition.
Although it may be a long year on the field for the Seahorses, the club will take the short-term pain for the long- term gain if it means the club can remain viable.